Jordan regretted leaving the cult. He missed the scent of familiar bodies, how they huddled together on cold nights. The cabins they built were ill-equipped for Montana winters. Snow swept in beneath window sills, gales slithered through gaps in the shingles. One collapsed mid-January, its inhabitants divided between the remaining huts. No one minded. More bodies meant more heat.
Jordan missed the food, especially the beans and kale. Since leaving the cult, Jordan found he had started eating processed meats, large quantities of cheese, that he was always bound up. The rest of the cultists couldn’t comprehend fermentation, how rennet turned milk into cheddar. They’d lay leafy greens at the base of the oak spirit’s altar, praying he’d keep the land fertile, that they’d avoid the norovirus next time around.
With only two outhouses, stomach illness was the most feared element of communal living.
Jordan wondered if he’d still miss the cult if Lauren hadn’t left him three months after they were off the compound. She’d been assigned to his cabin, the neighboring bedroll. When snow fell, they’d press close. He liked to think it was mutual, not a relationship preordained by Jeremiah, the cult’s leader, the one who wore the crown of acorns and holly sprigs. He’d told each of them where they’d sleep, whom they’d share meals with, whom they’d play board games with when the harvest was in and no seeds needed sewing.
Jordan and Lauren were together for each activity.
He knew the rhythm of her breathing, her opening moves during chess, the names she’d mutter fearfully in her sleep, her mother’s abandonment, her father’s faith in fringe religions and self-improvement.
Jordan whispered kind words when nights grew dark, promises he intended to keep.
But he woke one morning in their Oregon hotel room to find her side of the bed cold, backpack gone, the remainder of their money swept from the bureau.
They’d both been working at McDonald’s when the pandemic struck. Fast food workers were deemed essential labor. Part of him didn’t blame her for walking out, part of him knew he’d never leave her if given the choice.
Jordan wanted to blame the pandemic, the isolation and constant threat of sickness. He wanted to blame the anxiety, the rage thrown at them from irate customers who swore they asked for no pickles, when pickles never entered the conversation.
He wondered if Lauren had gone back to the cult, used their cash to get a bus ticket one way. It seemed unlikely. Jeremiah wasn’t kind to deserters. He’d watched too many arthouse cult movies, his persona assembled from different personages who never believed in leniency. Jordan had seen the scarred backs, the branding. Lauren would never allow Jeremiah to etch his name onto her skin like cattle in a pasture.
Jordan knew the pandemic wasn’t to blame, nor the quarantine.
They’d barely spoken a meaningful word since leaving the compound, their once perceived connection a figment crafted by a condensed world.
How much romance could truly come from artificial selection?
Jeremiah probably thought their offspring would be particularly viable in the field, that their combined genes would yield beauty or brains or knowledge on how to make cheese. He’d always been hung up on that. It was easy to be kind to a complete stranger when the world was cold, and the temperature was cold, and everyone else in your life up to that point was cold. Just because you’re a source of warmth doesn’t mean you’re an ideal romantic partner, let alone a soulmate.
On his only day off, Jordan was stuck in the hotel room, scanning the fifteen TV channels, trying to decipher what the water stains on the ceiling were trying to tell him. Were they roadmaps? Directions back to Lauren? Coded messages flung from afar? He drew them out on napkins, trying to ascertain if they made more sense when righted. In unconscious moments, his mind whispered prayers to the oak spirits, the one’s he knew didn’t exist, the one’s Jeremiah half-heartedly insisted shown favor whenever they yielded to his demands.
He slipped up several times in his descriptions of their deities origin myths.
Jeremiah was a lazy storyteller.
After a particularly bad rain storm, the inverted drawings aligned, the veins of mold resembling street layouts, highways crossing large bodies of water. He borrowed several sightseeing maps from the front desk, laying his sketch over directions to the world’s largest barber pole. After some finagling, some creative license with the stains, Jordan knew he’d found the path to Lauren.
He had enough money for a bus ticket. There was nothing stopping him from abandoning the frialator. But if Lauren wanted to be found, she would have left a note, would have intimated a course.
Jordan knew how to take a hint.
The map would always be there, penned and inked. Lauren knew the hotel phone number, his room code. If she decided she missed him, if their barefoot walks through larch groves, moss damp beneath their feet, meant anything, she’d call and he’d trace the route.
If she only desired a little extra body heat, that was alright too.
It was the cold that drove Jordan to the cult in the first place. He understood the need for warmth.
Corey Farrenkopf lives on Cape Cod with his wife, Gabrielle, and works as a librarian and landscaper. His fiction has been published in Catapult, Redivider, Hobart, Monkeybicycle, Volume 1 Brooklyn, Third Point Press, and elsewhere. He is the Fiction Editor for Cape Cod Poetry Review. To learn more, follow him on twitter @CoreyFarrenkopf or on the web at CoreyFarrenkopf.com.